Hard-learned lessons: Has the turmoil of last season made the Montreal Canadiens better?

The Canadiens are banking on the premise that last year’s disappointing season taught them valuable lessons. How can we tell if they did or not?

In discussing Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize in Literature, a guest on CBC radio (a professor of English) was analyzing the songwriter’s lyrics. At one point, he described Dylan’s observations about trying to predict the future.

To paraphrase, he said that the business of making predictions usually requires healthy dollops of boldness and brashness. Anybody who reads pre-season predictions knows this to be true.

The professor continued: although braggadocio is usually the way, Dylan’s lyrics explain that more accurate prognosticators speak more softly; they don’t need to be as concerned about being right as they need to be afraid of it.

A great many predictions have the Montreal Canadiens finishing somewhere near the top of the Atlantic, to win maybe a playoff round, and to be, perhaps, a good hockey team. Compare that to last year, when a great many predictions — brashly, boldly — had the Canadiens contending for the Stanley Cup.

The predictions this year are considerably more measured. They are spoken softly. Fearful truths.

In the off-season, general manager Marc Bergevin said he wanted to add more grit to the Canadiens. It’s undeniable that he did so, largely by virtue of the additions of Shea Weber and Andrew Shaw, though perhaps also through the introduction of stalwart backup Al Montoya, who has looked strong through two games.

And that’s good. Because in the absence of their star goaltender, the Habs need Montoya to be Carey Price Lite.

Whereas the 2015-16 campaign got off to a blistering start before crumbling to dust, this season has seen a sluggish Montreal team drag itself to a 1-0-1 record through two, without looking especially strong.

There have been bright spots. Alexander Radulov has been dynamic, and Artturi Lehkonen’s first goal was a welcome reward for a hard-working rookie, but as a whole the team has struggled to establish a presence in its games, being outplayed physically as well as outshot.

That the Canadiens haven’t been dominant is no surprise, but it would be easier to understand if such performances were turned in against tougher competition — the Lightning, the Panthers, even the suddenly high-flying Leafs. But Ottawa and Buffalo?

In last year’s disaster of a season, the Habs started losing despite playing well; the team eventually stopped fighting the skid, playing as poorly as their record indicated they must be.

That brought forth wholesale changes, and while two games isn’t enough to gauge their effectiveness, the first looks are showcasing a team that hasn’t learned how to limit the opposition’s chances, a team that still relies on superb goaltending performances for success.

That’s about all that’s certain of this Montreal team. For all the players we know as individuals, for the coaches whose specialities and tendencies we’ve come to realize, we still don’t know about this group; its capabilities or its potential.

Part of that is just hockey, where luck plays a huge role in a league where parity reigns supreme. But the other part is where the Canadiens have to see how well this team can produce based on this game plan.

So far, the team built to be gritty and speedy has looked to be neither. In flashes, perhaps. But if last season taught this team anything, it’s that consistency is the key to success, and if the Canadiens are playing the long game, they’d do well to master their perceived strengths sooner rather than later.

At one point of that Bob Dylan discussion, the professor stated that Dylan created a world where both sides of a paradox were necessary to form a whole truth.

The paradox Marc Bergevin is banking on is that the Canadiens needed to be bad to see what it takes to be good.  It remains to be seen whether that is the truth.


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